ST. LOUIS – The Biden administration issued guidance to states on Tuesday that it said will ensure the country's largest-ever investment in water infrastructure doesn’t bypass disadvantaged communities that are disproportionately affected by environmental hazards like pollution.
The Environmental Protection Agency's guidance memo applies to $43 billion in the infrastructure bill for making drinking water cleaner, improving sewage treatment and replacing lead pipes. The agency said the memo helps the Biden Administration meet its goal of addressing environmental needs in communities that often have high rates of poverty and unemployment.
The money will be distributed over five years and boost programs that give states and territories broad discretion in funding water projects — but with some parameters on how the money should be used. For example, the memo said nearly half of the $15 billion for lead pipe replacements must go to disadvantaged communities.
“Putting in place these guardrails to help ensure the funds reach the communities that need them most is essential for the program to reach its potential and for us to advance equity,” said Katy Hansen, a senior adviser for water at the Environmental Policy Innovation Center.
According to a report by the center and University of Michigan that reviewed data between 2011 and 2020, money from the a federal-state program for drinking water was less likely to go to projects in smaller and more racially diverse communities.
Hansen, a co-author of the report, said disadvantaged communities sometimes lack the resources to compete for funding and that it’s important they can upgrade their infrastructure without taking on more debt.
The EPA memo is part of the Biden administration's “Justice40" goal of providing 40% of benefits from federal investment in areas like clean water to disadvantaged communities that are often low income or largely minority. Some advocates have asked for more details about how the program will be administered.
Many Republican officials have criticized the effort, saying the White House should not impose a policy agenda on infrastructure funding. In January, a coalition of Republican governors sent a letter to President Joe Biden saying an “excessive consideration of equity, union memberships or climate” would be counterproductive.
And after federal officials issued guidance aimed at prioritizing pedestrian and bicycle safety when widening roads, a top Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said the new infrastructure law shouldn’t be “a vehicle for the administration’s woke agenda.”
According to the EPA memo, the funding for water projects will flow through state revolving funds and include grants and forgivable loans. States must tell the agency how they intend to use the funds and the EPA will review those plans.
“The implementation memo really gives states the rules of the road,” said Radhika Fox, head of the EPA’s Office of Water.
Money to replace lead pipes, for example, needs to be used to get rid of the entire lead portion of a pipe — not just a part of it, according to the memo.
Erik Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council praised the requirement, noting that partial line replacements can actually increase the amount of lead in tap water.
A portion of the $5 billion for addressing contaminants like the chemical compounds known as PFAS, or forever chemicals, also has to go to disadvantaged communities and smaller water systems, the memo said.
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